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<<  -- 2 --  Robert Anderson    SATISFYING THE QUEST


Wilde's tale concerns an agonised student urgently seeking a red rose to persuade his girlfriend to attend the prince's ball with him. He is overheard by a nightingale perched in a holm-oak tree who ultimately satisfies the quest by sacrificing her own life. There are strange overtones. Classical nightingales have become birds only because as humans they committed murder; hence their endless complaining. For Oscar Wilde the nightingale is bird enough to rate her own heart as far less than a man's; but her overwhelming sympathy with the bookish young scholar is such that she will pass a night in rapturous song with her breast thrust against the thorn of a rose-bush till finally it penetrates her heart. There then blossoms a rose of deepest red.

Perhaps Wilde took a hint from mediaeval Persia. In his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald has a telling couplet:

'Red wine!' -- the Nightingale cries to the Rose,
That yellow Cheek of hers t'incarnadine.

Not that the altruism and pain of the nightingale is of any avail. When at last she has created the rose 'out of music, by moonlight' and stained it not with wine but with her 'own heart's-blood', the professor's daughter, for whom the quest was undertaken, claims the rose 'will not go' with her dress and that the chamberlain's nephew is proving a far more satisfactory suitor. The rejected student can merely turn on its head the nightingale's earlier comment, 'Surely love is a wonderful thing', and define it now as merely 'a silly thing'. Back he will go to his philosophy and metaphysics, slamming the door of his room to the final F minor chord.

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Copyright © 18 September 2006 Robert Anderson, London UK


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